10 Questions to Ask Before Signing with a Small Press Publisher (Part One)

Small press publishing has become a significant cottage industry. Self-publishing changed the book industry’s dynamics, and as many of the large traditional publishers struggled to make profits and maintain relevance, many entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to fill a void. Not burdened by high overhead or restricted by antiquated publishing practices, small press companies have the benefits of agility and flexibility.

For many authors, a small press publishing contract offers a nice “middle ground” between being on their own as an Indie author and the long, often pointless process of courting a major publisher. Understandably, a book contract offers both excitement and a sense of “approval” or acceptance. In short, for some writers, “I’ve been published” feels more legitimate than “I’ve published.” And for those authors not interested in learning about marketing, publishing, sales, editing services, and all the other mechanics that make up “publishing,” a small press can alleviate the stress of the requirements and the unknowns.

Unfortunately, small press publishing is not without its dangers. And signing with the wrong publisher can have huge ramifications on your writing career. Horror writer, Brian Keene, is a best-selling author, but his agreement with a small press publisher cost him a lot of headaches and a lot of money. It took a protracted legal battle to get his book rights back, and he never recovered the majority of the monies owed. He is not alone, but the majority of issues authors face only appear in personal blogs.

Although there is no sure-thing and even the best-intended publishers can experience unforeseen hardship, before you sign with a small press publisher there are several areas you should investigate. It’s an exciting experience when someone says, “we want to publish you,” but to ensure you don’t arrive in the land of broken dreams, suspend the excitement, quell your eager ego, and do your homework.

Here is a list of the questions and areas you should investigate:

1. Who is this publisher? In the United States, starting a business is a relatively easy and low-cost enterprise. In some states, the only requirement is the completion of a simple form and a small check (usually $100 to $500). The government doesn’t investigate, review, or inspect any aspect of the business. The process is one of registration, and the registrant decides if they want to be a corporation, an s-corp, an  LLC, or simply a dba (doing business as). The good news is that all registered business entities have basic information online such as the owner’s name, their address, and the year of “incorporation.” This information is all part of the public record, and anyone can search these records.

If you can’t find a small press publisher in the public records, you should ask your contact “in which state are they registered.” If they aren’t a registered entity, then you shouldn’t do business with them. And if they are registered you should inspect “how long” they have been in business.

2. Who is in charge? The public records will list the owners and agents of the organization. In today’s social media world, you should not be opposed to Googling the names of the owners. I work for a middle-sized corporation and myself, and the other executives don’t hide our backgrounds, and we don’t use fictitious email accounts. One of the biggest deceptions today is book service providers attempting to look “bigger” and more important by using fake email accounts to pose as assistants, company agents, and other positions that don’t exist.  If you are signing a contract with a small press, they should be willing to provide you a list of their staff that is relevant to your arrangement. If they are secretive or try to dodge the question, I wouldn’t do business with them.

3. What is their level of experience? It’s not just a question of “how long” they’ve been in business, it’s a question of the skill level of leadership and those doing the important work. Again, it’s easy to set-up a business with a fancy name, to send important sounding emails on company letterhead, and to create a professional looking website and imprint. But you want to be certain the people you sign with actually have some experience.

Recently, I had the opportunity to be a part of an anthology with other authors. Initially, I thought it would be a great idea, but as the little warning signs began to show up, I decided not to sign the contract. First, the publisher was not registered in her state of operation. Second, she had difficulties delivering the promised contract, and third, when I did finally read the contract she listed her “right to edit” my story. The last might not seem a big deal, but since my name is my brand I won’t give up my rights to approve changes to my work.

I decided against publication in the anthology. When I informed the publisher of my decision, in very nice terms, she immediately deleted me from her Facebook group ( a sure sign of maturity issues). In the end, the anthology never got published, and the “publisher” quietly ended communication without explanation to the other authors.

Many small press publishers have their own dreams to find the “next big thing” and that’s fine. Just be confident they have the experience and professionalism to deal with the challenges of the industry.

4. Which authors have they published?  Every company has to start somewhere, and someone has to be a business’s first client. However, if this small press is brand new and they have no other authors your risk is much higher. Obtaining a list of authors will provide you with the ability to review the professionalism of their publications, the types of efforts they make in marketing, the success of their authors, and even a chance to discuss the company with these folks.

5. What is their financial backing? You may not feel comfortable asking such a question. You may think it will spoil the deal. But this is perhaps one of the most critical questions to ask. Publishing a book costs money. Book covers, editing, formatting, marketing, and set up aren’t free if it is professional. Book sales rarely cover the cost of these things, and when they do, it often takes a long time. So how is this publisher able to spend thousands of dollars to publish your book if they don’t have a significant source of capital or revenue?

Now every contract or deal is different, and you may be responsible for these items, or they may come out of your future royalties. Most often when authors get burned, however, it’s because the publisher didn’t make enough money. If a small press is offering to do all the work at all the cost, it is entirely appropriate to ask about their financial health especially if you are exchanging any of your book rights for those services.

Part Two Coming on Thursday

Raymond Esposito is an award-winning dark fiction author and Amazon best-seller. His articles and interviews have appeared in a variety of publications including Family Circle and Sanitarium Magazine. He has a degree in Cognitive Psychology and has spent over 25 years as a criminal behaviorist. 

8 thoughts on “10 Questions to Ask Before Signing with a Small Press Publisher (Part One)”

  1. I think it’s also useful for every author to figure out why you want a publisher, what a publisher typically does, and if the publisher actually offers it and offers it well. I think that when most people make the mistake of taking bad deals it’s because they just don’t know what a publisher is supposed to do, so they don’t know what to look for. Often it’s fairly obvious that the author isn’t getting anything out of the contract with just a little bit of research. Typos on the webpage, inexperienced editors, ads for editors on Facebook, overpriced and few books, no online (or offline even) catalog.

    “Hybrid” publishers are the worst of both worlds offering nothing. I genuinely have no idea why someone wouldn’t just self-publish except, as you said, you feel accepted.


    1. Agreed and well said. Thinking “i’ve got nothing to lose” or “It’s better than nothing” is not the foundation for signing a mutually beneficial contract. It’s unfortunate how many SPA’s trade good business sense for vanity. Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation!


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